Agnes Ito

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Americanization and Incarceration Camp Education Curriculum: Transcription of a Student Reflection 

by: Ed Shi

Japanese immigrants in the United States placed high value on education.  These beliefs were instilled in their children, the Nisei, and established education as a principal aspect of the second generation experience[1]. Though aware of the societal limits placed on them by racism, Nisei had faith in education, that the “extraordinary efforts of loyal individuals[2]” could overpower these restraints.

 

Education remained a significant part of Japanese American life despite their incarceration during World War II. Camp education was Administered by the War Relocation Administration (WRA), and consisted of varying mixes of community themed learning and existing state school standards[3]. This was an opportunity for the government to control the education of an entire ethnic group, and thus, an agenda of Americanization was pervasive[4].  Among records from the Poston War Relocation Center, an incarceration camp in Arizona that operated from 1942 to 1945, is a typewritten copy of a writing piece by a high school student at the end of ninth grade on June 15, 1943. The student, Agnes Ito, reflects back on what she has done in school for the past year. This document affords a view from a student’s perspective into the relationship between the students and their educational institutions. Here the document reveals the effort of these camp schools in reinforcing American values of loyalty and patriotism. Further, it shows a positive portrayal of student attitudes towards camp education, though this view may be skewed by the reflection having been a school assignment.

 

It is likely that the indoctrination of American values was a guiding incentive behind camp education. A fear of Japanese American action against the United States was a significant driving factor behind incarceration[5]. Camp life meshed with tests of loyalty. This included singing patriotic songs, political confessions and questionnaires[6]. Americanization became a unifying and pervasive theme in incarceration camp education by the time the WRA took oversight of camp schools from incarcerated, college-educated Japanese[7]. As seen in the 1944 WRA Handbook, emphasis was placed on the government’s perceived fears of Japanese Americans living outside of ethnic communities[8].  American ideals and democracy were infused into children so as to prepare them to be delegates of Japanese Americans to the white public[9]. A theme of emphasis on American and euro-centric beliefs is evident through Agnes’ description of the curriculum. In her past year, Anges learned: writing, oral presentation, bibliography, ancient history and anthropology[10] – topics vulnerable to revisionism. Writing assignment prompts can focus in on glorifying American ideals, as can subjects of oral presentations and articles used to teach bibliography. Her anthropology and history classes are described as emphasizing ideas of social progress and the glory of western modernization. Notably, Agnes mentions she learned of the “Three races of people, the negroid, caucasoid and the mongoloid.”[11] She goes on further to mention learning racial differences in head shape, skin color, hair and height. Historically, these ideas have been used to justify racist beliefs – attempting to give a biological element to social concepts of race. They further emphasize the inherent otherness of the Japanese Americans and enforce the idea that Japanese must be changed in order to fit into American society. Last, her school year also included a significant Red Cross themed exhibition project[12] that suggested themes of American patriotism.

 

Likely furthering the goals of the WRA, writing composition seems to take up the plurality of curricular focus. Reinforcing English skills was a way to improve communication between the incarcerated and their administration[13]. However, an English education, in an isolated camp environment lacking Japanese language schools, also furthers the goal of Americanizing Japanese children[14]. Born to immigrant parents, Nisei children navigated life on both American and Japanese sides. Learning Japanese was a way of keeping their Japanese identity and the connection with their parents[15]. Children in camps already tended to spend more time away from their parents, and camp authority reduced and replaced parental authority[16]. Emphasis on an English-only education may have further exasperated the rift between generations. Despite reports from other teachers at the Poston War Relocation center, it is questionable as to whether Japanese American students possessed any extraordinary deficit in English that may have justified such intensive curricular focus. Agnes makes numerous errors in her reflection, and her English seems broken[17]. However, it is worth noting that the document was a typewriter transcription of Agnes’ original handwriting and it is possible that these breaks are due to typing errors. Further, 1928 statistics of Los Angeles high school children show Japanese American children outperforming other groups, other than Germans, in all school subjects[18].

 

Perhaps as significant as the content of Agnes’ education is how she expressed her opinion of it. From start to finish, her writing indicates an extremely positive view of her school year. At face value, Agnes seemed happy in the midst of forced relocation and unfamiliar conditions of camp life. She is very interested in what she has learned over the past year, with statements like, “…I found very interesting…I certainly learned many things of which I didn’t ever think about.”[19] However, it may have been in her best interests to maintain a positive viewpoint throughout her writing when considering it was a school assignment. Her all-positive recount seems more questionable when considering that camp schools were often very poorly equipped and teacher quality was highly variable[20]. Student reports from other camps indicated largely negative views on the state of camp schools[21]. Moreover, it may have been frightful for schoolchildren to give any sense of resentment towards their camp institutions, given that incarceration was built on a foundation of questioning Japanese American loyalty. It was also not uncommon for government policies to be found in alleged student-produced work, such as plays[22]. Parroting government policies may have given these children the high grades that maintained a sense of self worth and normalcy. It may even reflect the effectiveness of camp-school Americanization. These children might have aligned with government ideals, thinking them as providing the best outcome.

 

The transcription of Agnes Ito’s reflection gives credence to the idea that camp education served to indoctrinate Japanese American children with American ideals. The WRA capitalized on an opportunity to access the minds of all Japanese American children through school curriculum design and implementation. These children, no less salient than adults to the barbed wire fences and sentry towers of camp life, may have been equally affected by a pervasive Americanization agenda in their education.

 


[1] Chrissy Lau, “Second Generation” (speech, Ithaca, NY, September 23, 2014).

[2] Thomas James, Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans 1942-1945, 19.

[3] Chris Su, An Ambitious Social Experiment: Education in Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1945, 25.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Hastings, No Longer a Silent Victim of History: Repurposing the documents of Japanese American Internment, 25.

[6] Chrissy Lau, “Japanese American Incarceration” (Speech, Ithaca, NY, October 21, 2014).

[7] Chris Su, An Ambitious Social Experiment: Education in Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1945 18.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 26-27.

[10] Agnes Ito, Untitled, 1.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12]  Agnes Ito, Untitled, 2.

[13] Chris Su, An Ambitious Social Experiment: Education in Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1945, 25.

[14] Ibid., 30.

[15]Chrissy Lau, “Second Generation” (speech, Ithaca, NY, September 23, 2014).

[16] James Thomas,  Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans 1942-1945, 141.

[17] Agnes Ito, Untitled 1.

[18] Su, An Ambitious Social Experiment, 1942-1945, 17.

[19] Agnes Ito, Untitled 2.

[20] Chris Su, An Ambitious Social Experiment: Education in Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1945. 2

[21] Ibid., 30.

[22] Ibid., 29. 

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